Sunday, December 20, 2009

Schools are too important not to improve

Some readers have protested that schooling is clearly wrong when it allows students to not pay attention to what they are supposed to pay attention to.  Aren't our schools good?  Didn't they produce you and me?

Yes, they are good.  I often warn education majors to beware these international comparisons that always show American kids way behind in calculus and such.  As I found out when visiting a British high school, American education is strong BECAUSE of what many perceive as irrelevancies, such as sports, clubs, musicals and such.  The Eight Year Study found that success in American colleges was often connected to the extent that high school students used these 'extra-curricular' opportunities and did not merely study the curriculum.

But there is a big BUT, a big caveat, a big However: Way, way too many students don't graduate from high school and way too many who even graduate from college don't find their education paid off very much.  What is good education is, how one like ought to pay off and how to determine whether it did pay off well has been the subject of very strong debate for 2,000 years.  That sort of debate has been especially rigorous in the U.S. for the last 100 years and still is.  But sources such as "The Unschooled Mind" by Howard Gardner make it clear that a great deal of the requirements of most of schooling don't seem to do that much for the students, especially over a period of, say, 30 years.

The problem with the schools is similar to the problem with Civil War hospitals: we lose too many!  We alienate too many.  We bore too many.  We need to find ways to do better.  Yes, you and I can pay attention when we decide to, even if we can't move about and we can't doodle or mutter to others.  But the evidence is clear that many cannot learn well under such circumstances.  Humans differ but most schooling, most education is has too few choices in both the content allowed, that is what can be studied or attended to, and the methods, that is, how one is to act while learning.  It takes more mental power and broader planning to accommodate more choices, to find ways that more personalities, more types of minds can get involved successfully.  But the special educators, new methods of gaming and multiple possibilities through computers, permitted use of videos and audios in addition to old-time essay writing are broadening the ways we can reach students and assist them to become alive and aware. 

The easy response to difficulties in class is punishment, toughness.  "Whip the little bastards and they will shape up."  There has been steady growth in the evidence that you lose fewer students and they gain more if they are not treated harshly.  True, some grow with harsh methods but more grow and grow better and stronger and wiser with tailored methods for their strengths, not their so-called "weaknesses", which usually means lack of ability to do things that a few writers in previous generations thought important.  All of this was understood by educators before I was born.  It has been re-discovered by those educators that don't operate in the classroom, the human resources departments of companies.

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